NBC New York
A public school teacher in Queens is under investigation and off the job after asking her students to write letters to a friend of hers -- a prison inmate in upstate New York. Andrew Siff reports.
A Queens schoolteacher is under fire for allegations she had her students make greeting cards for a convicted felon in upstate New York during classroom instruction time, investigators charged.
The Department of Education said it is looking to fire Melissa Dean, who taught fifth-grade English as a Second Language at PS 143 in Corona, after a probe by the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City School District.
According to investigators, Dean had 25 students in her fifth-grade class make holiday cards for her friend serving time in the Groveland Correctional Facility in Sonyea, Livingston County, in December.
The inmate, identified as John Coccarelli, was incarcerated on convictions in Nassau County for violating an order of protection and illegally possessing a loaded firearm. In 2008, he was charged with a felony count of possessing an obscene sexual performance of a child. He was not convicted on the charge.
PS 143's principal, Sheila Gorski, filed a complaint against Dean when she learned of the incident from correctional facility authorities, who received the package of cards and deemed them inappropriate for Coccarelli to possess.
The principal told investigators that Dean admitted to Gorski she did not get permission from the school to send student work out of the building and told the principal she "thought it was a nice thing to do."
According to some of the students interviewed by school district investigators, Dean told her students to write their names on the cards if they wanted to receive cards in return. She didn't tell the class who the cards were for, saying only they would be going to "people who did not have a home or did not feel well," according to the investigators' report.
She did not obtain permission from the students' parents to make or give out the cards, the students said.
A visitors' log at the Groveland Correctional Facility showed Dean had visited Coccarelli 11 times between November 2010 and November 2011. She was listed as a "friend" in the visitors' log.
Through her attorney, Dean declined to speak with the special commissioner of investigation.
Parents at the school Wednesday were furious to learn of the allegations against Dean.
"It's horrible," Maria Hernandez told NBC New York. "Who would want to write to a person that's in prison? How dare she. That's sick."
"I can understand where she feels bad for the person, but to involve young kids, I wouldn't recommend it," said Ronaldo Ruiz.
Dean was transferred to an office in Long Island City pending the outcome of the investigation. She was not available for comment Wednesday.
At a town hall meeting Wednesday evening in Bayside, Queens, schools chancellor Dennis Walcott told NBC New York the recent string of scandalous cases are not a trend. He said with 135,000 employees in the school district, problems are impossible to avoid.
"I don't there are people just running wild, but like any large workforce, you have people who do the wrong thing, either intentionally or not," said Walcott, who described Dean's alleged actions as "mind-boggling."
Coccarelli is eligible for parole on May 6, 2012 at the earliest, and will be released May 6, 2013 at the latest, according to the Nassau County District Attorney. Upon release, he will be supervised for three years.